Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.
Jessica of Feministing has an outstanding interview with Katha Pollitt in the current Salon. Among her usual refreshingly clearsighted remarks, Pollitt touches on the clicheic put-downs of feminists as “strident” and overly political. What she had to say touched an important nerve for me:
Well, do black people, do Latinos, do workers go around saying, “Oh no! Our leaders are so strident! Someone just wrote a strident book defending my rights!” . . .
[W]hen we talk about abortion, how often do we talk about it in terms of women’s lives? As opposed to it being about a fetus being a person. The anti-choicers have so thoroughly switched the conversation over to the question of the personhood of the fertilized egg or fetus that now it’s even a person before it’s implanted in your uterus!
This came right on the heels of my stumbling across another old cliche of the abortion-rights fight: “There are no easy answers in the abortion debate.” The two together put me onto a line of thought that I want to spin out a bit:
There certainly are easy answers about abortion, and it’s time we damn well insisted they be recognized.
Abortion Rights: A Debate Long Over
Abortion is not a complicated topic. And it is not one that, somehow, inherently precludes coming to right moral answers, or working out clear, exact, and comprehensible solutions to the salient questions. In fact, the answer to the “debate” over abortion is perfectly clear, and it follows from a necessarily careful and exacting, but actually quite simple, moral argument.
The answer to the central question about abortion is that:
Any (mentally competent and autonomous) woman is entitled to determine whether or not to become pregnant, or to stay pregnant if she does, under any circumstances and at any point in the pregnancy, for whatever reasons seem sufficient to her, and to use whatever reasonable means she chooses to enact her decision in that regard.
In fact, the issue is so simple that I won’t bother giving the moral argument for it, because you all know what it is. (Hint: It rests on the woman’s inherent autonomy over her own body, and on the lack of morally salient qualities of personhood of the fetus until at least quite late in pregnancy and probably beyond, either of which independently would be sufficient to determine the answer give above. Working out the arguments is left as an exercise for the reader, or you could just go look up any of the hundreds of good versions of them printed in books and journals.)
Why the Question of Abortion is Not a Live Conflict
The “debate” over abortion is not really a debate. The anti-choice arguments offered are, with a few exceptions, utter horseshit. Virtually nothing said on the subject withstands the slightest, most minimal intellectual scrutiny. The slogans (“It’s a baby, not a choice!” “Abortion stops a beating heat!”), the crude signs, the pictures, the weird (and almost always grossly inaccurate) recitations of fetal development milestones (“Now he has his own fingerprints”), and all the rest of the nonsense, are not just inadequate to prove abortion immoral, they are grossly, deeply, deeply stupid. The morality of abortion has nothing to do with whether the fetus has fingerprints, or a beating heart. It has nothing to do with whether aborted tissue is pleasant to look at. “It’s a baby, not a choice” doesn’t even make sense: no physical object is a “choice”, a choice is a mental process, and the choice in question refers to the abortion procedure, not the fetus.
Obviously, the signs and slogans and rants and chants are largely intended as mere propaganda (though a depressingly large percentage of anti-choicers seem to believe that they have really said something when they’ve burped out one of their slogans). Even so, the fact that they are part of the debate at all, and the anti-choicers think they matter, implies either that they think their opponents are so dumb as to be that badly confused on what the issue is really about, or, the obviously correct alternative, the anti-choicers themselves are that dumb.
The “arguments” offered by anti-choice blogs, Web sites, and pamphlets are just as bad – abortion has nothing to do with whether a fetus feels pain, or is viable at this or that week of development, or has genetic defects, or doesn’t have genetic defects, or whether the Nazis were against genetic defects, or whatever other irrelevant and obscurantist confusion they drag in. Being able to feel pain does not give any person the right to live inside another person’s body against their will – still less the non-person fetus. Being able to live outside a person’s body does not give any person the right to live inside another person’s body – still less the non-person fetus. And what the Nazis did, they can answer for – the women of the world are not required to march the via Dolorosa to play out some anti-womanist’s pretended outrage at the Nazis.
Why Fetal Personhood is Not an Effective Counter-Argument to Women’s Autonomy
Because the answer to the question of abortion rights arises from the liberty interests of the woman at the center of the issue, and from the incommensurability of her moral rights and interests against the non-existent moral interests of the fetus which lacks moral standing entirely, there is only one way to coherently counter the claim to the right of abortion. That argument must rest on an assertion of fetal interests in claiming the woman’s body for its own benefit outweighing those of the woman herself to use her own body according to her own values. And that argument, again, has nothing to do with, and is not strengthened by, any signs, slogans, pictures, or consideration of the fetus’s bodily organs, appearance, or what have you.
There is an argument to that effect: it is the argument that every embryo or fetus is a moral person in its own right, or, almost equivalently, that moral personhood is synonymous with simply being a fertilized human zygote. This is the argument anti-choicers are implicitly making when they go on about how the fetus can be “proven scientifically” to be a “human being”, often adducing hilariously garbled statements about DNA and the fertilization process to “prove” this claim. (In fact, the biological development of an unique “human being” proves a dauntingly ambiguous issue when you look at it close up – and most anti-choice arguments on this topic fall far short of even the easy goal they set for themselves.) But the scientific data are not the salient issue in that argument; what matters is the – almost invariably completely implicit – assumption that merely “being human” is morally determinative of anything. And that claim cannot be proven, or even made very plausible.
(a): The Fetus Cannot Have the Capacity for Moral Personhood
If moral personhood depends upon any functional capacity at all higher than the cellular level – consciousness, self-awareness, sentience, viability, whatever – then the early zygote or embryo cannot be a moral person, because it has no such capacities for quite some time into development. QED. Game over. That’s it. There is no possible argument whatever to the conclusion that the early embryo is a moral person, IF moral personhood depends upon any functional capacity beyond cellular-level biochemistry and embryonic developmental processes. And the further you go in insisting that personhood depends on actually morally relevant capacities, such as having thoughts, interests, or desires, the further back on the developmental timeline you push the personhood threshhold.
(b): Fetal Personhood at Conception is an Arbitray Assertion of Opinion
So – o – o – o – o . . . the (quite rare) few anti-choicers who understand this have to, and do, fall back on a claim of fetal personhood that rests on no morally relevant qualities whatsoever. That would seem to be a weakness, and it is. It is, however, at least logically coherent, although arbitrary. What exactly is this about? Well, they simply assert that every human embryo is a moral person from the moment of conception. They often obfuscate the barefaced arbitrariness of this claim by then gabbling about DNA and chromosomes and “human life” and whatnot, but the relevant moral point is that they claim that personhood begins at conception, and, furthermore, that there is no reason for believing this at all except for the assertion itself.
Invariably, that assertion is prompted by some sort of religious belief, but there are, famously, no good reasons for adopting religious beliefs other than one’s own arbitrary act of will, and similarly there is no reason for accepting moral assertions grounded on religious belief other than that you, personally and for yourself alone, choose to do so. No one can assert the moral personhood of the fetus as a universal moral principle, for precisely the same reason that no one can stipulate what another person’s religious beliefs must be. And there you have it. The claim that fertilization confers personhood rests on no morally relevant fact whatever, and thus can only be arbitrary. The assertion that fertilization, or “being human”, or some similarly implicated scientific fact, is itself morally relevant, is merely an assertion of personal belief, usually religious in nature, not logically commanding anyone else’s assent.
(c): Why Fetal Capacities in Late Development Are Morally Relevant, and Conception is Not
A final note: it may appear, then, that the assertion that some other fact of development – such as consciousness, self-awareness, etc. – is morally relevant is equally arbitrary and idiosyncratic. Not so. Those capacities are inherently morally relevant – they are either pre-requisites for, or the functional capacity for, having moral interests at all. Obviously, having thoughts and goals is morally significant – they are the means by which we pursue the morally good life and recognize and adhere to the moral law. Without those capacities, among others, we could not be moral at all. In this way, they are obviously and irrefutably morally relevant, in a way that, say, having fingerprints, or “being human”, are not. So they are at least candidate qualities for defining moral personhood, in a way that having fingerprints and being human cannot be.
So we’re done with that, then, right? That actually wasn’t what I wanted to talk about.
The Main Issue: The Abortion “Debate” is Distorted by Failure to Recognize the Emptiness of the Anti-Choice Position
What I wanted to talk about is the fact that all that bullshit is still part of the wholly bogus and in-bad-faith “debate” over abortion! None of what I’ve written above is hard to understand. None of it is original in basic substance. And you can find some recognition of all that in the writings of at least some prominent anti-choicers. But it makes no difference – to anti-choicers OR to pro-choicers! They’re still spouting the same incoherent and utterly disingenuous bullshit, and we’re still letting them do it!
Pollitt is right on the mark when she asks why the fact that a woman’s freedom and life choices are at stake is not brought forcefully to the fore whenever any anti-choice thug takes the stand? She’s right that we would never countenance this ugly, bigoted, and at bottom stupid rhetoric about minorities, or low-income workers, or any issue we really cared about. But about abortion, we freely enter into debates about “what if she’s raped?” or what procedures should be allowed, or what the cutoff point should be, or how long you have to wait to have one.
On what other issue do we require someone to be raped before she can exercise her own rights? When do we ever say “you have the right to do whatever you want on this matter, but you have to do so by a medically more dangerous process than necessary if we don’t like your decision”? In what other case can you make a decision, wholly within your own rights and affecting only yourself, and then have to wait overnight to actually carry it out? Or listen to some state-sponsored speech, filled with lies, deliberately attempting to discourage you from exercising your legal rights?
To be sure, it wasn’t pro-choicers who made any of those decisions, and they fought them as hard as they could. But even pro-choicers get sucked into debating the personhood of the fetus – a matter that, if it cannot be defined to perfection, can very easily and with logical exactitude be determined not to include the zygote, or blastula, or embryonic, or early or middle fetal stages. That question is answered. Any dissenting answers are either religious idiosyncracies that you are free to ignore, or, simply, wrong. Anyone who offers any such answer is either ignorant, stupid, or deliberately trying to confuse the issue in order to take away women’s rights. It’s not open to debate. Asserting that the zygote or the embryo is a moral person is intellectually worse than being a creationist – and we are entitled to say so, and to insist on conducting the “debate” on those terms. “Compromise”, or “agreeing to disagree”, or agreeing that “there are no easy answers”, is simply allowing the anti-woman forces to set the terms of the discussion in a way that does not focus upon their encroachment upon women’s freedom and bodily integrity – which are the real moral issues in abortion.
The Abortion “Debate” Should be Focused on Women’s Autonomy as the Only Relevant Moral Question
This is what you need to know and say:
Abortion is a very simple moral issue. The moral questions it raises are not complicated, they are easily resolved (for all practical purposes), and the answers to them have long been known. The salient moral fact about abortion is the exercise of a women’s moral autonomy and bodily integrity. Other issues commonly raised in this “debate” are either the product of confusion or deliberate red-herrings. There is no significant debate taking place over abortion, any more than there is over the morality of slavery or the fact of evolution. The “debate” is merely the prolongation of a political conflict aimed at constraining women’s autonomy and controlling their sexual freedom. The “debate” serves only to push the violation of women’s rights out of the discussion and to create political cover for legal restraints on women’s moral rights.
And to the extent that we have allowed that “debate” to take place by not shouting at every turn “the issue is women’s bodies, women’s lives, and women’s freedom!”, we have forfeited our own moral clarity – a mistake we would not allow ourselves to make on any other moral issue.
The issue is women’s bodies, women’s lives, and women’s freedom. Accept no substitutes.
UPDATE: Tgirsch, at my home blog Lean Left, has suggested that this post is unnecessarily angry and insulting. (Actually, he claims that it “takes the angry train to insultville”, which I presume means the same thing, though I really have no idea.) Along with Pejar, below, that makes at least two people who say so. This indicates to me that I have failed to make my meaning clear enough. In response, I have not edited the language of the post, but I have added section headings above to make the logical structure of the argument clearer.
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